Racers get an ace in LSU's Fico
Opening Day for baseball coincided with the unofficial start of the 2013 National Pro Fastpitch season. The professional softball league's four teams won't play their first games until June 5, the same day the Women's College World Series could end if the best-of-three championship series goes the distance, but the college draft starts to bring the rosters into focus. So what did we learn from five rounds in Nashville?
1. Akron got its ace: Is LSU's Rachele Fico the best senior in the country? That's always going to be a tough case to make when someone like Keilani Ricketts is around. But there's a reason Racers owner Joey Arrietta said she only slept a couple of hours the night before the draft, even though she had known for months who she was taking with the No. 1 overall pick. What isn't a tough case to make is that Fico is unquestionably one of the best college pitchers in the country and a perfect fit as the face of a franchise that has a good roster and good infrastructure but lacks star power in the circle in a league where the contenders run out names like Monica Abbott, Danielle Lawrie and Cat Osterman.
Fico is about as low maintenance as a pitching ace can be, the right personality for the league's longest-tenured franchise and one that operates with a lower profile than the USSSA Pride or Chicago Bandits. And by all accounts, she's eager to keep playing softball. Whether or not she immediately displaces a veteran like Lisa Norris or Hillary Bach, the Arizona State product who pitched quality innings as a rookie in 2012, Fico's a true franchise player.
2. Chicago engages in arms race: The Chicago Bandits have been the primary foil for the star-studded USSSA Pride in large part because Monica Abbott levels a lot of playing fields. The Bandits have done a masterful job of finding position players who received college accolades but perhaps weren't fully appreciated -- Alisa Goler, Amber Patton, Megan Wiggins and Tammy Williams among the more notable examples -- but Abbott is Abbott. What the Bandits didn't have last season was as much pitching depth as the Pride. So in using the No. 3 pick on California ace Jolene Henderson, who doesn't take a backseat to Fico, Ricketts or anyone else as a pitcher, the Bandits may have, appropriately, stolen a key piece of the championship puzzle. They don't need Henderson to pitch a ton of innings, but if she can compete with Nikki Nemitz to be the No. 2, it's a big win now, with the potential to be a true ace.
And in Texas A&M's Mel Dumezich, a fourth-round selection who is an Indiana native, the Bandits may have landed the next in their line of overlooked gems, whether they use the two-way player in the circle or at the plate.
3. New York building in the circle: The league's newest team isn't really new. The New York-New Jersey Comets (and it's always a good idea to make your name as geographically unwieldy as possible) are stocked with some of the players who made up the Carolina Diamonds a season ago. Unfortunately for them, it's doubtful Katie Burkhart will make the move. Burkhart was a workhorse ace who gave the Diamonds a legitimate shot to win any game she pitched a season ago, even against the Abbotts and Ostermans of the world. But she seemed ready to move on to other endeavors after the summer.
Without Burkart, the newly-christened Comets have big pitching needs. They helped the cause by tempting Taryne Mowatt out of semi-retirement, the former Arizona ace providing both a potential quality arm and a proven name to market. Monday, they used their first two picks on pitchers, taking Hofstra's Olivia Galati in the first round and Oregon's Jessica Moore in the second round. If they received indications that Moore wants to play in the league, those are two quality arms to go with Mowatt, even if Galati seems like a slight hometown reach with the second overall pick.
4. USSSA goes speculating: While the rest of the league tried to fill immediate needs, the Pride's deep roster of proven veteran talent gave them the luxury of taking chances in the draft. And there is no doubt they could end up the big winners from Monday's proceedings if Oklahoma teammates Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults commit themselves to the professional league now or in the coming seasons. That may well not happen immediately, with the national team potentially keeping both from much or any professional softball this summer. But with the reality that Osterman will at some point bring a brilliant career to a close, the Pride at least have the rights to another transcendent talent -- and the rights to the catcher who caught Ricketts for the past four seasons and set Big 12 slugging records in the process. It's a gamble worth taking, and one only the Florida-based superpower could take.
5. Missing in action: Among seniors not selected in Monday's draft were Tennessee second baseman Lauren Gibson, Alabama outfielder Kayla Braud, Texas outfielder Taylor Hoagland, Missouri third baseman/outfielder Nicole Hudson and Texas pitcher Blaire Luna. And those are just a few of the names that went uncalled for players who could be college All-Americans this season.
The omissions are not because the people making picks don't know what they're doing. While there can be mistakes (the league seemed unaware of former Loyola Marymount star Sam Fischer or her interest before USA Softball scooped her up last summer), those non-picks presumably indicate teams were led to believe those players are pursuing other ventures, be it more time with the national team for someone like Gibson or interests beyond softball.
Professional softball is a passion and a sacrifice for the players who participate. It is not yet a viable career in its own right, not even in the short term. But it is still an option. Time will tell if the newest draft class can help strengthen it.